This Fourth of July we look at the promise of America and why America is the world’s best hope against extremism.
America is not a normal country. That’s not just because of its colossal size, or because you can buy anything you want, 24 hours a day at any given supermarket. It’s not even because of the flag.
It’s because of its founding ideals.
Almost uniquely among countries, America was founded on an idea. That idea is that it doesn’t matter where you come from, what your religion is or who your parents are: If you work hard, you can achieve your dreams. Many people try to say that it’s not really true, and that it’s just an idea.
But the fact that America even has that as a founding story is wild. It’s easy to forget how unique it is.
Most states that are around today were created through some combination of luck and ethnic cohabitation of a certain area. The borders of modern Europe have been redrawn hundreds of times, as Europe’s aristocracies fought each other tooth and nail for every scrap of land.
Meanwhile the populations developed strong attachments to specific areas. The strong identities you see in countries like France or Germany were created through hundreds of years of cultural development through shared experiences and handed-down traditions. The evolution of those monarchies into modern democratic states was gradual.
It’s also a reason why in Europe far-right organizations such as neo-Nazi movements have a rich history to draw from, including specific examples of former regimes they wish to resurrect and emulate. This doesn’t just mean Nazi Germany or fascist Italy, but the hundreds of years of monarchy that came before these regimes.
For many countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, their origin stories are even less empowering. Syria, Iraq and Jordan were all created after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in conferences decided by the European colonial powers.
There aren’t really foundational ethos which anchor these countries, a fact which many scholars argue is partly why Iraq and Syria face such sectarian violence today.
America is different.
America was created on purpose, by a group of people who no longer wished to be ruled by out-of-touch overlords thousands of miles across the sea. They wanted to rule themselves. And they wanted to set up a system which would allow anyone to be who they wanted to be.
That’s why freedom of speech and the separation of religion and state were written into the Constitution. What the First Amendment means is that the country agrees on at least one thing: It’s ok to think what you like, and it’s ok to say what you like.
That may not sound like a big deal today, but it is.
A shared belief in freedom is the number one thing that can successfully challenge extremism in all its forms. By accepting everyone’s way of life (as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else), extremism can be stripped of all its appeal.
Instead of a feuding collection of faith and racial groups, America (at least in theory) is a nation of individuals bound together by a common belief that everyone has an equal shot at making it and an equal right to try.
Compare, again, to Europe. In the United Kingdom, for example, a hereditary monarch is head of the established church of the state (they even use the title “Defender of the Faith”).
France and Germany were both explicitly formed as nation states for the French and German peoples who were considered to be ethnic groups that speak a shared language. How to transition that ethnic nationalism to a sense of shared civic identity, especially following the immigration of millions of people from Africa and Asia, is now a hot national debate.
America, by contrast, has always been a country of immigrants. Many fled exclusionary national and religious policies in Europe. Others came for the same reason from China, India, Pakistan, Africa and indeed all over the world.
And once arrived, people are drawing close together. Since 1967 the share of marriages between ethnic groups has risen dramatically, from 3% to 17% in 2015.
When we look at what drives extremism, we see a sense of belonging and identity as paramount. When your country is based on a national or religious foundation and you don’t fit into that grouping, it puts you at odds with the country at large.
An exploitative extremist group can use that disconnect as the first hook to begin the recruiting process.
What unites Americans is not ethnicity or creed, it’s an idea. Anyone can join in, and indeed, that’s pretty much the whole point. It is an idea inclusive enough and powerful enough to uphold an entire national identity. In fact, it’s pretty much the first time in history it’s been tried.
And that means an extremist recruiter has to work much, much harder to convince anyone they are excluded from taking part in American life.
This Fourth of July, there is every reason to expect this great American experiment to continue going from strength to strength.
Happy Independence Day.